Exclusive shared-ownership deals unlock a world of luxury properties without the hassle, writes Liana Cafolla
It's 1am in Hong Kong when your phone rings. It's the tenant in your holiday home in Switzerland saying the heating isn't working and can you please arrange for an engineer to come immediately. At times like these, it's easy to wonder if buying that dream apartment that you end up using for only two weeks a year was really a good idea.
The downside of owning a second home overseas is the unwelcome reality of having to deal with maintenance from abroad. It's an aspect of ownership that can dishearten many owners of second homes in other countries, says Tim Murphy, founder and CEO of property investment and management company IP Global.
'It's a big part of our business,' he says. 'Ninety-five per cent of our clients who buy with us, use us to do all the leasing and everything. What people hate is a leaky tap in London and a 3am phone call and a GBP50 (HK$600) call-out fee.'
Those considering a second home abroad should visit the area and make sure that it is what it appears to be, he advises. 'And secondly, if it's anywhere reasonably exotic, speak to a lawyer and make absolutely sure that you can own it in your own name or in joint names,' he says.
Buyers are often swayed by the aesthetics, but deciding to buy a property abroad requires a level-headed look at the legalities.
'I always tell people not to be too emotional about it. First of all understand, can I own this thing? What are the legal ramifications in this country? Can an English person, can a Chinese person buy a beach property in Thailand or in Bali or whatever? Almost entirely, you cannot.
'In most of these markets you can't actually own physical freehold property. You certainly can't in Thailand and you can't in Indonesia, which are two very popular lifestyle markets. It's all very well getting something that you like the look of, but is it ever going to be really yours and how easy is it going to be to sell it?'
Despite the hazards, Murphy says second-home ownership is on the rise, thanks to a combination of higher prices in Hong Kong, caution over equities and the fall in property prices in Europe and the US.
'The number of Hong Kong Chinese buyers that we had in the first quarter of 2012 was double what we sold in 2011 ... for the whole year. If you're buying in New York, you're paying 25 per cent less than you were paying in 2007.'
If outright ownership appears too complicated, or too expensive, there are alternatives. In the past, timeshares - where buyers bought the use of one property for a set period each year, equivalent to owning 'a piece of thin air', says Murphy - were often seen as a viable alternative, but the schemes have lost popularity outside the United States. Instead, various kinds of shared ownership arrangements are attracting interest in the second-home market.
Murphy says shared ownership can make sense when participants own a share of the asset - but potential buyers should look closely at the details, especially costs and exit options.
Annual maintenance costs can often be significant, he says, 'probably more than it would cost you to get on a plane and stay in a hotel'. Owners also need to consider the possibility of selling in the future, in the event that their financial circumstances change or they lose interest in travel.
'My concern often is liquidity - how easy is it to sell these properties in the future?'
City apartments can be a lot easier to sell than hard-to-reach holiday locations.
One scheme offering city-based options is Co-investir Paris, which offers a fractional ownership scheme where a maximum of four investors jointly own an apartment in the French capital. They share the maintenance costs and taxes, and split the profits if the property has increased in value when they sell. Similarly, they share the costs if the property has lost value at the time of the sale.
With four owners, each holds 25 per cent of the owning company, for which they each pay between Euro275,000 (HK$2.7 million) to Euro350,000 for a furnished apartment.
'Ultimately, this Euro275 000 to Euro350 000 spent includes an investment of this amount in premium Parisian real estate and a right to use the flat 13 weeks per year,' says co-founder Thomas Abinal, who adds that the fall in the value of the euro has made the proposition even more attractive for overseas buyers.
Costs, which include taxes, insurance, utility bills plus the company's fees for management, maintenance and rental, amount to Euro300 to Euro350 per week of use, which Abinal says owners can cover by renting out the flat for about four weeks a year out of their 13-week allocation.
During the first eight years, owners can sell their share to the co-owners or third parties, or all the partners can agree to sell.
'At the end of this initial eight-year period, liquidity is guaranteed thanks to the ability of each partner who holds 25 per cent of the shares to trigger the sale of the apartment to enable the assignment proceeds and any capital gain to be shared between the partners, [if] the partner was unable to find a buyer for his shares,' says Abinal.
The owned weeks are not set in advance. Each co-investor can book six of the 13 weeks up to six months before January 1 each year, and the remaining weeks can be booked a maximum of six months before the start date. Owners can also swap weeks with each other at any time.
Co-investir sells three properties a year, and plans to expand. 'We intend to set up an investment fund by the end of the year to double this pace,' says Abinal.
Another shared-ownership option is The Hideaways Club, founded by Briton Mike Balfour, who also founded the Fitness First chain of gyms before selling them three years ago. Balfour started the club out of frustration that his villa in Spain was often empty.
'If you are not going to use an asset regularly, then it's best to share,' he says.
The Hideaways Club buys luxury villas and apartments outright around the world. Its portfolio currently includes 33 four or five-bedroom villas and ski chalets in Europe, Southeast Asia and South Africa, as well as 18 two and three-bedroom apartments.
Members can buy a full equity share in the portfolio of villas for GBP250,000, plus GBP14,000 per year in maintenance costs that include repairs, insurance, taxes and utility bills. That entitles members to between four and eight weeks' accommodation in the properties over a 12-month period, depending on the period chosen.
Alternatively, they can buy a full share in the apartments' portfolio for GBP120,000 and an additional GBP5,300 per annum in maintenance costs, entitling them to 23 nights' accommodation in a 12-month period. Members also pay 1 per cent of the annual share price per year to contribute towards capital investment growth in the portfolio.
The club currently has about 350 members, and the ratio of villas to members is 1:6, while for apartments it is 1:10. 'The reason it's different is because apartments don't have the same seasonality as villas,' says Balfour.
Reciprocal membership with other clubs gives members access to 70 villas worldwide, and members can book online up to 12 months in advance on a first-come, first-served basis.
Members are served by a concierge service that takes care of supplementary arrangements, such as hiring chefs or private cars, and booking restaurants or theatre tickets - all at a cost - as well as maintaining the properties and handing over the keys.
New properties are chosen in consultation with members, and the club is currently looking at properties in Sydney, and second locations in New York, London and Paris.
Members can sell their holding to an incoming member and pay a 5 per cent marketing fee to the club, although only three members have sold so far. 'The great thing about the cub is we have very, very few sellers,' says Balfour.
Any profits from increases in the value of the property portfolio are split 80-20 between the club and members. Balfour says the club bought many properties at low prices during the global economic downturn.
Meanwhile, buying into a leading brand with access to lavish resort amenities is on offer under Banyan Tree Private Collection (BTPC). It does not offer ownership, but members can use any of 13 luxury villas. Members also get discounts of up to 20 per cent at Banyan Tree hotels and resorts.
'Banyan Tree Seychelles, for example, will cost you about Euro4,000 a night, but with this membership you get seven nights for US$3,120, says Margaret Koh, marketing director for BTPC.
The company sells memberships in return for annual usage rights of their properties. It costs US$150,000 to join for an individual membership, which entitles the buyer to seven nights' accommodation annually, and US$250,000 for two weeks under corporate membership, plus annual fees of US$3,150 or US$6,300 respectively.
There is also alternate year membership, allowing members to take holidays every second year. The joining fee is US$80,000; dues are payable every second year.
Members can use the club's dedicated membership services team to book restaurants, hire cars and reserve excursions, and can access the facilities of Banyan Tree resorts. The team also handles reservations for the properties on a first-come, first served basis. Bookings can be made up to a year in advance, and the seven or 14 nights can be split into several shorter stays in different properties.
The club's own properties are located on Bintan Island in Indonesia. Other locations are the Seychelles, Tuscany, Provence, London, Kyoto, Bali, Phuket and areas in China. Reciprocal arrangements with two other clubs - The Hideaways Club and Exclusive Resorts in US - give more choice in countries like Portugal, France, Morocco, Switzerland and Turkey, among others.
Membership currently numbers in excess of 200. The club's assets are owned by a separate property trust, with shares held by trustee shareholders, insulating members from any business risks associated with Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts.
Membership does not expire and can be transferred, sold or willed to a third party at any time at a transfer cost of US$10,000, or to immediate kin for US$500.
'This is a great way of getting all the family together [in] a destination that they would like to visit,' says one BTPC member.
Minor irritations in the houses, such as no salad bowl and a broken coffee machine has not dented her enthusiasm, saying: 'The overall experience was very nice. They are very nice houses.'